(2001) Gregory Benford, Orbit, £6.99, pbk, pp416, ISBN 1-84149-062-8
In a 3,500 year old Mycenaean tomb in Greece an artefact is unearthed with strange physical properties that simply should not exist: they should not exist today let alone several thousand years ago. It appears to have destroyed one civilisation and could threaten our own...
Benford is a physicist and as such this brings great strength to his hard SF. His brilliant Cosm (reviewed elsewhere on the Concat site) reportedly caused a stir amongst some US physicists who thought they recognised some of the characters, and his novel Timescape was a hard SF masterpiece. So what of Atrifact? To come straight to the point, here Gregory Benford is far from at his best. As explained in the book's afterword (one of its more interesting features) the book extrapolates from existing physics speculating if there was a force regulating very, very heavy sub-atomic particles? How might this manifest itself in the real macro world? This is the underpinning fictional science to the story. Now this underpinning is fine, but the plot making up the story is two-dimensional. I have to say at first I found the way the Greek authority figure was presented quite objectionable, rather xenophobic, but real-life events of late 2001 which saw western air plane spotters arrested for spying due to one jumped-up official - gives credence to Benford's representation. Nonetheless the characters are two dimensional and Benford's difficulty in portraying non-Americans is noticeable. Among the cardboard cut-out characters there is the struggling field archaeologist trying to reconcile her expedition goals with the local politics, whose most interesting human attribute is that she smokes. There's the have-a-go physicist out to save the day, the science administrator that likes things done by the book, and the afore mentioned Greek army official. To be quite frank I could not empathise with any of these and the story just plodded along. Artefact found, artefact puzzled over, analytical equipment is required but there are problems in getting it to Greece, the artefact is embargoed, the American scientists then hijack it, take it to the US, more analysis, more puzzlement, slow realization of what they have got... etc. Artifact is very much a by-the-numbers yarn that unravels so slowly and employing such unconvincing people that quite frankly it was almost a relief to come to the book's end. All in all Artifact is a passable tale and may well suffice to while away a long plane journey but little more.
Sorry Benford, you have done much much better before and while this is an average tale some of us have come to expect far more of you. This may well be the price of previous success and personal bias. So if, dear web-surfer, you like your SF hard then you might give this a go and see whether or not you agree with me.
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